Napoleon Dynamite, set in a small town in Idaho, could very well take place in an alternate universe populated by some of the most unique and memorable eccentrics one could imagine. The title character, a mouth-breathing high school nerd who sports parachute pants, moon boots, and a peculiar stoicism in the face of humiliation and failure, has the rare capacity to annoy, exasperate, and ultimately touch those he shares his strange world with. His journey, fraught with pitfalls many of us have encountered in our teen years, is well worth hitching our star to.
The town of Preston, Idaho, set amidst desert wilderness, chicken farms, and picturesque mountains is the home of Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder), a high school geek with an active fantasy life. His daily reality consists of being treated as an outcast and bullied by jocks. In a strange way, he's comfortable with who he is. Irritable and petulant at times, far from being instantly likable, he plods along from day to day, taking what comes. Napoleon lives with his older brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell), a small, slight, nerdy-looking 32 year old boy-man who spends his days in internet chat rooms trying to meet "babes". Napoleon's household is rounded out by his free spirited grandmother and a pet llama. "How was your day?" asks Grandma after Napoleon has just had his head slammed against a locker. "Just the worst day of my life," Napoleon replies. "What do you think?"
In Napoleon's Walter Mitty-like daydreams he sees himself as a martial artist, master of the bo staff and the nunchuck, a wolverine hunter, and the boyfriend of a gorgeous model. This, at least, is what he tells Pedro (Efren Ramirez), a new boy in school, recently arrived from Mexico. Pedro is quiet, soft-spoken, a bit naive, exuding goodness and decency. He too must endure a series of humiliations, including the patronizing attitude of the school principal, who doesn't hesitate to let Pedro know that he's got a long way to go to become a worthy American. Pedro and Napoleon become fast friends.
Napoleon's grandmother, whose free-spiritedness has resulted in her cracking her tailbone in a dune buggy accident, ends up in the hospital, only to be replaced by Napoleon's Uncle Rico (Jon Gries). Rico is a rootless, somewhat slimy man; good-looking and utterly self-centered. Rico's life took a bad turn in 1982. When Rico was a backup high school quarterback, the coach ruined the team's chances of going to the state championship by not putting him in the game, at least in Rico's mind. This also ruined Rico's shot at turning pro and today living in a mansion instead of in his van, out of which he sells everything from plasticware to breast-enhancement cream. Rico drives the already irascible Napoleon crazy, and spends most of his time at home eating up the family's supply of steak, dreaming about his lost opportunity, and videotaping himself throwing football after football. For all his eccentricity and obnoxiousness, there's an element of Everyman in him, a midlife obsession with what might have been.
Rico and Kip team up in a series of sales schemes, which, of course, don't go as planned. There's a subplot involving Napoleon and Pedro's attempts to get prom dates. Deb, (Tina Majorino), a shy sweet-faced fellow outsider at the school, plays a major part in what proves to be a potential triangle with the two boys, a situation handled with extreme skill and sensitivity by the screenwriters. At the same time Pedro runs for class president with unexpected results.
The main strengths of Napoleon Dynamite lie in the originality and inventiveness of the script, and, most of all, in the characters who are fully-realized and credible with their strengths and weaknesses intelligently balanced. Some viewers may be discomforted by memories that these people bring up, memories of adolescence and its inherent turmoil, attendant pain, triumphs, and tragedies. There are many funny moments, but at no point does the film resort to crassness, frank sexuality, or cheap laughs, though there are slapstick bits such as Rico, in a fit of rage, throwing a steak he was eating at Napoleon and hitting him in the face with greater accuracy than most of his football tosses.
The humor that suffuses the film arises almost solely out of its slightly wacky but touching characters. Redemption and growth do happen, and the end result is a small but fine film that fully deserves its rise from low-budget obscurity to a rousing reception at Sundance, and then on to cult status. "Sweet!", as Napoleon would say.
Not having seen the first DVD release, I obviously can't comment on the usefulness of buying the new 2 disc edition for those who own the first. The image transfer is anamorphic wide screen 1.85:1, audio is dolby digital 5.1 with French and Spanish subtitles available. The visuals and sound are both excellent.
Besides the film, disc 1 contains audio commentary by the actors, much of it clever and funny. I found that it enhanced my appreciation of the specific scenes involved, and hence of the film as a whole. There is, of course, some of the expected mutual backslapping, but not to excess.
Disc 2 includes some very funny features, including John Heder's turn in character at being an MTV host, and his very clever stint as host of Saturday Night Live. A feature titled "worst carnival ride", spoofing the Utah State Fair, shows Napoleon in a cardboard box tumbling down the steps of a stadium. It had me, and potentially Napoleon, in stitches. Heder's a natural comic, and I was amazed at how different he looks when he's not geeked up as Napoleon. Disc 2 also includes a featurette, "The Wedding of the Century", and a short film, Peluca by writer-director Hess. In sum, I highly recommend the disc to those who have not seen the film. As for those who own the original DVD, caveat emptor.